Literary Sleuth Absolves Bard of a Bad Poem

It will be interesting to see if The New York Times puts Donald Foster’s astonishing retraction of his famous “Shakespearean discovery” on the front page-the way the Times front-paged the professor’s original claim. But Mr. Foster’s remarkable reversal, and his remarkably graceful admission of error-unreported in the press till now-is big news with major implications not just for Shakespeareans, but for American literary and media culture as well.

And I say this not merely because it vindicates my own long-standing and lonely position (lonely at least in the U.S.), argued repeatedly in these pages, that Mr. Foster was mistaken in his attribution of a long, tedious and sententious 1612 poem called “A Funerall Elegye” to Shakespeare. As I wrote five years ago in The Observer , the “unseemly rush to certitude in America … will come to be seen as regrettable, even embarrassing.”

But before going further, we should pay tribute to Mr. Foster for his courage and intellectual honesty in admitting that he made a mistake. And for a beautiful sentence about true scholarship that he wrote to sum up his sentiments.

In his June 12 communiqué to a small-circulation discussion list for Shakespeare scholars (Shaksper.net), in which he first (semi-)publicly disclosed his reversal, Mr. Foster said, “No one who cannot rejoice in the discovery of his own mistakes deserves to be called a scholar.”

It’s a line that should win him more admirers than any so-called discovery, and it’s a line more scholars should take to heart. It’s a line about the way truth is often discovered through the dialectical process of making claims, recognizing error and often thereby discovering new truths. In this case, the new truth, Mr. Foster now concedes, is that the “Elegy” he claimed for Shakespeare was actually more likely written by John Ford, a Jacobean dramatist.

Mr. Foster, for those coming late to this controversy, is the Vassar academic who built a reputation as a “literary sleuth”-“the world’s first literary detective,” as the publicity for his recent book, Author Unknown , calls him-on his 1995 “Shakespearean discovery” (as the media hailed it), and on his subsequent 1996 unmasking of Joe Klein as “Anonymous,” the author of Primary Colors. Mr. Foster’s reputation as a “literary sleuth” has led to his being consulted by investigators, including the F.B.I., in high-profile cases involving disputed documents-the Jon Benet Ramsey murder, the Unabomber case and, most recently, the anthrax letters. Or, as The Times of London put it, “F.B.I. Agents Take Lessons in Detection From Shakespeare Super-Sleuth.”

He’s also continued to investigate literary mysteries, including the authorship of “The Night Before Christmas” and the curious “Wanda Tinasky” letters, which some-myself included-speculated might be the pseudonymous work of Thomas Pynchon, but which, as I conceded in these pages last year ( The Observer , Sept. 17, 2001), Mr. Foster has definitively proved, in a virtuoso display of energetic literary scholarship, were the work of a different, albeit sinister and fascinating figure.

I’d concluded my original Wanda Tinasky speculations on a note of agnosticism: “I can’t make up my mind. But I do know that if Wanda is not Mr. Pynchon, she or he, whoever she is, ought to step forward to be honored for capturing … the spirit of Mr. Pynchon in her prose.” The fact that Mr. Foster misrepresented my agnosticism (in his chapter on the Wanda case in Author Unknown) as the kind of no-doubt certainty he expressed about the “Elegy” did not prevent me from hailing him for his discovery of the real “Wanda.”

But since 1995, Mr. Foster has never expressed the slightest hint of agnosticism, or anything less than total certainty, in his attribution to Shakespeare of the wretched “Funeral Elegy,” and he has often been contemptuously dismissive of his critics for daring to disagree. All the more shocking, then, to read his announcement in that June 12 post to the Shakespeare discussion list that he’d been convinced of his error by a single scholarly article.

The article in question, which appeared in the May issue of The Review of English Studies, was entitled “‘A Funeral Elegy': Ford, W.S., and Shakespeare,” written by one G.D. Monsarrat of the Université de Bourgogne. In it, Mr. Monsarrat argues that the author of the “Elegy,” the mysterious “W.S.” (the only byline on the poem), was actually John Ford-a conjecture I advanced four years ago in the Jan. 19, 1998, Observer , on the basis of a letter to The Times Literary Supplement from the British literary scholar Brian Vickers. Mr. Vickers’ forthcoming book on Donald Foster and the “Elegy,” Counterfeiting Shakespeare (Cambridge University Press), also makes a powerful case for Ford-and according to Mr. Foster’s June 12 post, was an additional factor in his decision to make his retraction now.

Mr. Foster told the Shakespeare scholars’ list that “I know good evidence when I see it”-and thus, on the basis of Mr. Monsarrat’s evidence, he withdrew the attribution, conceding that “the Elegy looks like the work of the Jacobean dramatist John Ford.” Amazing!

I still believe that Mr. Foster went wrong only when he was seduced into shifting from an agnostic-but-leaning-toward-Shakespeare position in his original 1989 book on the question ( Elegy by W.S.: A Study in Attribution ) by the siren song of statistical analysis, or “stylometrics.” I believe he was led astray by overreliance on his digitized database, the one he called SHAXICON. In effect, I think he was conned by SHAXICON into adopting a definitive claim. And the media was cowed into acquiescence because of a misplaced awe of “computerized analysis”-even though Mr. Foster is correct in saying that he brought more than a computer to his scholarship.

In Author Unknown , Mr. Foster also credits his shift from agnosticism to certainty to what he calls a “close reading” of the “Elegy” by his colleague Richard Abrams of the University of Maine. (Mr. Abrams joined Mr. Foster in communicating to the Shakespeare discussion list his conviction that the Monsarrat article had disproved the case for Shakespeare’s authorship.) In any case, the unconvincing “close reading” that helped Mr. Foster to make his erroneous leap into certainty suggests that “close reading” is not a science, but an art.

But the issue of close reading-what is or isn’t true close reading, as well as the virtual abandonment of close reading by American academics-is, I believe, at the heart of the controversy, and of the lessons to be learned from Mr. Foster’s retraction.

In the days after reading the posting, I was able to get hold of the Monsarrat article and to reach Brian Vickers in Zurich, Switzerland, where he is chair of English Literature at the Centre for Renaissance Studies at a university there. Mr. Vickers was able to fill me in on the origin of the article that led to the Foster retraction.

Mr. Monsarrat is a scholar specializing in English Renaissance literature, and he has written extensively on stoicism in English literature-work in which John Ford played an important role. Ford is best known for his dark incest and revenge drama, ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore , but he’s also the author of a number of religious and devotional works, including several funeral elegies.

According to Mr. Vickers, Mr. Monsarrat was at work on the final volume of a new French bilingual edition of the complete works of Shakespeare when he was forced to confront the “Funeral Elegy” question. His French publishers were swayed by the fact that three mainstream American academic publishers had included the “Funeral Elegy by W.S.” in their Complete Works of William Shakespeare editions in the wake of uncritical front-page publicity about Mr. Foster’s attribution. (One would hope that these publishers-Norton, Riverside and Addison-Wesley-will now include an “Erratum” slip in current editions and remove the poem from future ones.)

Including the “Elegy” was, in effect, a marketing ploy by the American publishers (“Get yer brand-new Shakespeare poem here!”), forced through despite the reservations of their editors, and Mr. Monsarrat’s French publishers wanted to follow suit.

But then Mr. Monsarrat read the poem.

“As he worked on translating the ‘Elegy’ into French,” Mr. Vickers told me, “Monsarrat began to find that in virtually every line of the ‘Elegy’ there were parallels to Ford coming to mind. Not just verbal-since he’s written on English stoicism, he found echoes of Ford’s version of stoic philosophy.”

This led Mr. Monsarrat to study both the “Elegy” and Mr. Foster’s attribution of it to Shakespeare more closely. He found that Mr. Foster’s explanation for the parallels to Ford-that Ford had plagiarized from the “Elegy”; plagiarized from Shakespeare, in effect-didn’t hold up. He re-examined the lines that Mr. Foster claimed showed an overlap between Shakespeare and “W.S.,” the author of the “Elegy.” What Mr. Monsarrat found was that, when examined in context, many of the overlaps were actually more characteristic of Ford’s idiosyncratic use of the words than Shakespeare’s. In other words, where Mr. Foster, in effect, relied on statistics, on counting the apparent Shakespeare overlaps, Mr. Monsarrat did a close reading of the context and found Ford’s voice instead. Consider the following examples:

There is, in the “Elegy,” the phrase “pure simplicity.” While the word “simplicity” appears in both Shakespeare and Ford, Mr. Monsarrat says, “Ford … used the word with synonymous adjectives, ‘Artlesse simplicitie’ … ‘spotlesse simplicitie’ …. Shakespeare never uses the expression ['pure simplicity'], and only uses ‘simplicity’ with pejorative adjectives: ‘Twice-sod’ simplicity … ‘low simplicity'” (my italics).

Then there’s the metaphoric use of “bread”: “Foster considers that ‘the bread of rest’ [in the 'Elegy'] is an echo of ‘the bitter bread of banishment’ [in Shakespeare], but it is in fact closer to Ford’s ‘Sweet is the bread of content,’ and ‘sleepe of securitie is a bread of sweetnesse.’ In Shakespeare the bread is ‘bitter,’ in Ford it is pleasant.”

In the preface to his forthcoming Counterfeiting Shakespeare , which he faxed me from Zurich, it’s evident that Brian Vickers uses a similar argument. In Ford, “a word like ‘steadiness’ is not a linguistic counter [my italics] … that can be found with an electronic search function, but a term having specific connotations within a philosophical system”-connotations that Mr. Vickers, like Mr. Monsarrat, argues were ignored or simply gotten wrong by Mr. Foster in his reliance on counting.

I was particularly pleased to see that Mr. Monsarrat clinches his argument with a passage from Ford that contains the phrase “a funeral elegy of tears”-a line from the play The Lover’s Melancholy , a line which I’d found and cited four years ago in my argument for Ford over Shakespeare.

The irony, for Mr. Vickers (something that Mr. Foster himself notes in his retraction), is that in Mr. Foster’s 1989 Elegy by W.S.: A Study in Attribution , his first book on the subject, Mr. Foster himself cites much evidence that Ford might have written the “Elegy”-evidence that he says he “scoffed at” on statistical grounds.

Mr. Foster now says in his retraction that he had not “yet determined where I went wrong with the statistical evidence.” But in fact, Mr. Monsarrat’s essay makes it clear: It was in favoring statistical evidence in the first place-counting the number of shared references, the “rate of enjambment,” etc. It was in favoring a quantitative approach over a qualitative attentiveness to the context in which the shared words appeared, and the different colorations these words are given in their respective uses by Shakespeare and Ford. In short, in counting rather than close reading.

Reading (and misreading) is crucial to Mr. Monsarrat’s critique: “It is a great pity,” he says, that “Foster became (partly) aware of the strong link between Ford and the elegy only after he had attributed its authorship to Shakespeare. By then positions had become entrenched and this led him to a complete misreading” of one of Ford’s poems. Mr. Foster’s failure to read closely, Mr. Monsarrat says, results in “a travesty of Ford’s poem, and I feel that this tends to make one regard with suspicion his whole argument attributing the elegy to Shakespeare.” It’s true that once Mr. Foster became famous for his Shakespeare attribution, he tended to be intolerant of his critics’ opinions to the contrary. But I think Mr. Monsarrat is a little harsh here on Mr. Foster, who I believe is capable of doing quite intelligent close reading when he’s not being led astray by SHAXICON’s close counting . (Mr. Vickers also argues that SHAXICON is too narrow a sampling of English Renaissance literature to play the kind of decisive role that Mr. Foster gives it.*)

In some respects, it’s hard to blame Mr. Foster. I know that when I first read the “Elegy,” the excitement caused by this purported Shakespeare discovery inclined me to give it (and Mr. Foster) the benefit of the doubt. And it’s true, as Mr. Foster points out in his retraction, that Mr. Monsarrat does not solve the remaining mystery of the “Elegy”: Who was the mysterious W.S.? If he wasn’t William Shakespeare, then why would John Ford sign the initials “W.S.” to his work?

My theory of the Ford/W.S. problem was suggested four years ago by a conversation with Don Foster himself. He was trying to dissuade me from my conjecture that Ford wrote the “Elegy” by asking me why Ford would have signed it “W.S.” As I wrote back then, Mr. Foster “told me he’d uncovered previous unknown links between the dead guy, William Peter [the murdered man the 'Elegy' was written about], and Shakespeare. So both Ford and Shakespeare knew the dead guy,” I wrote. “But Ford knew him better. And Ford and Shakespeare knew each other. Suddenly it occurred to me: John Ford ghost-wrote the ‘Elegy’ for Shakespeare .” The family of the dead man, knowing Shakespeare a bit, might have asked the renowned bard, through Ford, to write the “Elegy.” And Shakespeare, with no appetite for the task, might have asked Ford, who was something of a protégé and knew the dead man better, to dash something off and sign it “W.S.” to make the family-and the public-think Shakespeare had written it.

It turns out that Mr. Monsarrat also believes a Ford-as-ghostwriter theory, although he tentatively suggests, in a footnote, that the man who asked Ford to ghost the “Elegy” may have been a cousin of Ford’s, William Stradling.

Mr. Vickers believes that we may never solve the mystery of who W.S. was, except to say that he was not William Shakespeare.

But what about the larger mystery: Why were American academics such sheep when it came to accepting en masse-or at least not objecting, as many English scholars did-to Mr. Foster’s “Shakespearean discovery”? After all, it’s not just the authorship of one poem at issue here. Rather, it goes to the heart of who Shakespeare was as an artist: inclusion of the “Elegy” in the Shakespearean canon would compel a re-evaluation of the entire evolution of Shakespeare’s thinking on spiritual questions, a re-evaluation of the entire corpus of his work, since the “Elegy” would represent not only one of his last major works, but one of his most personal.

If Don Foster can admit his mistake, perhaps American academia can admit its mistake: the uncritical substitution of postmodern death-of-the-author sophistry for serious scholarship. (For anyone who doubts that sophistry is the foundation of so much of what passes for Theory in the academy, I heartily recommend Brian Vickers’ devastating dissection of the philosophical groundwork of postmodern theory, Appropriating Shakespeare .) The reason that postmodern death-of-the-author theory has incapacitated those in its thrall from making authorship judgments is that authors are now considered irrelevant, mere “constructs” of hegemonic power relations. Perhaps Mr. Foster’s retraction will signal the death of death-of-the-author sophistry.

Of course, I’ve optimistically imagined that such a turning point was upon us before. Two years ago, in the Times Book Review , I published an essay hopefully suggesting that the reign of theory in academia-or at least in Shakespeare studies-might finally be on the wane (“The Play’s the Thing, Again,” Aug. 6, 2000). It too was prompted by a kind of retraction, a rueful, witty reconsideration (at a Shakespeare Association of America seminar) by a prominent postmodern theorist, who said: “Our institutionalized solidarity in bashing the ‘bourgeois subject’ has to some extent calcified us into an elite corps of yuppie guerrilla academics.”

Mr. Foster, of course, is not a postmodernist, and he bears no responsibility for the reign of Theory. At his best, he’s a superb old-fashioned scholar who believes in bringing a wide range of criteria to bear on literary study. (He tells us in Author Unknown that he learned much about the importance of context from his big mistake in the Jon Benet Ramsey case, where he also had to retract his original conjecture about the authorship of the ransom note.)

But maybe Don Foster’s stunning retraction of his Shakespearean attribution will be the wake-up call that’s needed for academics to re-open “debate about what makes Shakespeare Shakespeare [and] what makes language poetry and not doggerel,” as I put it five years ago. In this light, there is one disturbing element in Mr. Foster’s mostly gracious retraction, one more grudging than graceful: his continuing mischaracterization of his critics as being guilty of “bardolatry.” It’s a red herring-his way of dismissing the very idea of literary quality as a factor in making an attribution.

Once again, Mr. Foster seems to indicate he believes that critics of his attribution rejected it mainly because, as he says in his June 12 post, “Shakespeare was simply not a man to write that sort of thing”-i.e., because of “bardolatry,” the belief that Shakespeare could never write badly.

It’s certainly not a position I’ve taken. In my Times Book Review essay, I praised the way Frank Kermode, the British Shakespearean, put it in Shakespeare’s Language : We must acknowledge that Shakespeare is capable of writing badly or opaquely at times-that some of Shakespeare is better and some of it is worse. If we want to be able to say that Shakespeare is a better poet than Ford, we have to admit the possibility of value judgments. Of course, literary value is not a matter of science; it’s not something that can be measured by SHAXICON. But it’s there .

My suggestion is that for someone like Mr. Foster, who has shown such admirable humility in admitting his mistake, it’s perhaps not appropriate to sneer at his opponents’ criteria for judging his attribution of the “Elegy”-especially since, as it happens, they were right and he was wrong. Maybe they didn’t just happen to be right for the wrong reason, as he suggests. Perhaps he has something to learn from them.

Still, all of us, scholars and readers, have something to learn from Donald Foster, from the courage of his retraction and the memorable way he phrased it: “No one who cannot rejoice in the discovery of his own mistakes deserves to be called a scholar.” I think we can all rejoice in the fact that Donald Foster, now more than ever, deserves to be called a scholar.